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Hundreds of Parents of Special-needs Children Get Boost at Hamaspik’s Annual Support Weekend

July 8, 2016

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

Some 250 couples, proud parents of families affected by disability, enjoyed sharing a joint Shabbos together this past June 24-26 weekend at the Sheraton Crown Plaza Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut.

Guests came away with joy, invigoration, direction and faith from the Hamaspik-hosted annual event.  It was a Shabbos of inspiration that fortified the parents, all heroes in their own right, with the strength to carry on daily with caring physically and spiritually for their loved ones—and themselves.

Anticipation of the inspirational weekend began months ago, with the announcement of the event’s date, and that Hamaspik’s beloved Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Mendel and Brenda Katina would be spearheading it once more, extending their 15-year track record of experience and excellence in Shabbaton and event coordination.

As the date approached, Hamaspik’s teams of Medicaid Service Coordinators (MSCs) got busy informing their beneficiaries’ parents of the upcoming reservation date—and all other related event details.  

Mr. and Mrs. Katina simultaneously secured an event site, guest speakers, catering and the hundreds of additional details large and small that go into coordinating such an event.

Before you knew it, the long-awaited Friday was here.

Parents had long arranged for babysitters for their precious children, had their bags packed, and were now en route to a weekend of rejuvenation and happiness that would carry them forward for the next 12 months.

Laying the groundwork

Stamford’s lovely and leafy suburban setting was the perfect background for the heroes of the upcoming weekend drama: The devoted parents who tirelessly give of themselves day in, day out for their children with special needs.

Guests arriving at the hotel were greeted warmly by Mrs. Katina and her Hamaspik assistants in the lobby, each receiving a welcome package including the weekend’s official schedule.

World-class guest speakers like the Chuster Rebbe (Rabbi Meshulem Ginsburg) and Rabbi Fischel Schachter; noted educators like Rabbi Yisrael Fuchs of Baltimore’s Talmudical Academy yeshivah; inspirational orator Rabbi Shaul Y. Rabinowitz of Kiryas Joel; Rabbi Moshe Paneth of Lakewood, New Jersey’s Satmar Chasidic community; Rabbis Asher Z. Sussman and Saadya Grama of Lakewood’s Keren HaTorah yeshivah; Kiryas Joel’s Rabbi Hershel Friedman; Rabbi Michel Pfefferkorn and others were listed.

Also, Cantor Wolf Landau and the Zemiros Choir were scheduled to help lead the regular prayer services throughout the weekend.

Opening ceremonies

After a pre-Shabbos buffer, unpacking and settling in, and perhaps a little nap, guests converged on a ballroom-turned-shul for the Mincha and Kabolas Shabbos services.  Leading the services was the Chuster Rebbe himself, delivering an invigoratingly appropriate spiritual introduction to the Shabbos that lay ahead.

Mr. Katina spoke after Mincha, setting the atmosphere and tone of inspiration that would follow from all the speakers throughout Shabbos.  First thanking Hamaspik staff from founder Meyer Wertheimer on down, Mr. Katina hailed the assembled parent body for the monumental merit they collectively earn for their 24/7 involvement with their precious children—an involvement no stranger could appreciate.

He then introduced Rabbi Shachter, a beloved guest at previous Hamaspik Shabbatons and the Chairman of this year’s Shabbaton.

Opening with various inspirational nuggets and balancing content and humor, Rabbi Shechter connected with listeners’ hearts as he commented on the theme of the week’s Torah reading.  

Grand Rabbi Ginsburg, the Chuster Rebbe, next took the floor, delivering fiery words that easily could have qualified as “Sermon of the Year.”  Rabbi Ginsburg dwelt on the spiritually rich and personal relationship with G-d that comes with caring for a child with disabilities—with every challenge and every “pain” another chance to draw even closer.

Rabbi Ginsberg also invoked the great inspiration that said parents lend one another, brother to brother and sister to sister, at such Hamaspik Shabbatons.

By the time the Rebbe concluded, the air was practically aflame with an atmosphere of unity—the perfect mood with which to formally usher in the Shabbos Queen.

The unexpected appearance of beloved community entertainer Mr. Velvel Goldstein, better known by his waggishly nonsensical “Chatzatzker Rebbe” stage persona, was all the more heightening.  Mr. Goldstein, who, unbeknownst to guests, had been on the premises all along, brightened up the room as he made his way down the aisle.

Sometimes the best things happen unplanned—like the spontaneous dancing that burst forth in the middle of services, at the height of a happy tune, and carried on for several long and enjoyable minutes.  One upbeat melody led into another, and when it was over, the rest of the services were a complete different experience.

The Friday night meal, during which guests sat around large tables like the one big family that they are, was rendered even more nourishing with the guest address of Rabbi Shachter.

Rabbi Shachter’s talk served as an introduction to the powerful talk next delivered by Rabbi Sussman, who used his time to magnificently lay out the four facets of personal self-worth.

Later in the meal, Rabbi Moshe Paneth of Lakewood took the floor to expound upon the Torah portion of the week and its message of inspiration.

Guests were seen shmoozing and connecting to the wee hours of the morning, with some retiring for (what was left of) the night at half-past-three.

As late as it was, zemiros old and new were inspirationally led by Cantor Landau and the Zemiros Choir, with heartfelt and uplifting liturgy buoying one and all.

It wasn’t much later that the earliest risers were seen up and about, each engaged in early-morning spiritual studies of their personal preferences.  An hour or so later, the morning Shachris prayers formally began, with Cantor Landau taking the podium to take congregants to soaring spiritual plateaus rife with personal meaning.

All for one and one for all

For the assembled fathers of children with special needs, the height of the entire Shabbaton, as it has been year after year, was the informal pow-pow before lunch.

For a good hour or two, the men unloaded their deepest and most painful personal burdens, honestly sharing their greatest difficulties in special-needs parenting—and getting back a wealth of hope and strength in the form of positive and practicable suggestions, tips and experience from the collective wisdom of the others.

The free-flowing session was facilitated by Rabbis Friedman and Fuchs.

Subjects covered by the session were wide-ranging.  One father talked about the community’s support for a Baltimore special-needs organization, another two shared about prayer, and yet others about embracing their children as the gifts that they are.

Over the lunch that followed, Rabbi Grama talked about what it truly means to be a parent—for typical children in general and children with special needs in particular.

Rabbi Rabinowitz spoke next, speaking movingly about faith and prayer, both philosophically and practically, giving his listeners inspiration to carry forth throughout the year.

Grand keynote

After a long afternoon break, guests enjoyed an afternoon study session with Rabbi Paneth in Ethics of the Fathers, a classic religious work traditionally studied come summer.

The keynote address of the entire Shabbaton came next, with the venerable Chuster Rebbe himself drawing upon his noted oratory skills to expound upon several key themes for the crowd—leaving members of the rapt audience touched and inspired, with smiles and more than a few tears seen across the room.

In summary, Grand Rabbi Ginsburg touched upon the topics of happiness, strength, and inner peace as they pertain to special-needs parenting.  Rabbi Ginsburg also covered overcoming trials and never giving up on dreams, or on prayer, leaving the audience spellbound for quite some time after the speech ended.

Taking it all home

The “Melaveh Malkeh” post-Shabbos meal started about one hour after the Day of Rest ended—but went on until close to dawn.

Its highlight was its panel discussion, a feature returning for the second consecutive year.  With four guest speakers fronting the room from behind a table, parents sent up questions on actual daily scenarios encountered in the regular course of special-needs parenting.

The four panelists responded to the anonymous written questions, each with their own take and perspective, shedding fresh light and providing most-welcome clarity and direction.

The panel session was followed by another Shabbaton favorite: Live music.

Sunday morning opened with the customary Shacharis morning prayer services followed by breakfast, with the weekend’s atmosphere of unity and inspiration lingering over both.

Guests went home chock-full of reinvigoration for themselves and their families—carrying in their hearts something that can’t be expressed, but sure to emerge in the hundreds of interactions with their special children now certain to be different, and in the best of ways.